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Just Some Vanilla

I’m no fan of snow, but as my eyes roll in disgust at weather forecasts I concede there were times when snowfalls thrilled me. Not due to missing school, sleigh riding, or building snowmen, but because Vicki and I would go to the store for Nannie.

At an unknown point in our youth, after one snowstorm or another, my sister Vicki and I decided we must plod across the field through snow, no matter the depth, to see if our grandmother needed anything from the store. Nannie lived in a huge old farmhouse, had always cooked for many, and could have at any point in time prepared a meal for forty out of what she had in her cabinets and refrigerator. Not even touching what was stored in her cellar.

Still… Vicki and I were sure Nannie needed something and we’d save the day by trudging through snow to ask, trekking through snow to the store, then slogging back through snow with the precious items we knew she needed badly but was unable to get out and get. Proud of our impending usefulness, we stomped snow from our boots and headed inside for what was sure to be a massive grocery list from Nannie. How else could she make it to the spring thaw if not for our efforts?  It was important to her that we helped, we were sure. We waited for her to list all of the things she needed desperately from the store.

“Well,” Nannie began as she watched snow pile against the window, “y’all could get me some vanilla.”

She did a lot of baking, we knew, but no milk? No bread? Coffee even? A side of beef? Anything? Just vanilla? Still, if it was important to Nannie, it was important to us and this vanilla was apparently very necessary. How fortuitous that we were there! Off to the store in the foul weather, vanilla purchased, and back to Nannie’s. We returned cold, soaked, red-cheeked, and tired… but mission accomplished. We had value.

That pattern repeated for a few years after every snowfall of every winter. If there were two heavy snows in a winter, Nannie somehow needed two bottles of vanilla. Our timing was uncanny. How relevant we were. It was important for Nannie to have that vanilla and without us her hopes would have been dashed. We felt an amazing sense of accomplishment and pride after helping. We were just kids, but we mattered!

Years later as adults, actually during the heat of summer, Vicki and I sat talking with Nannie on her back porch. Somehow conversation worked around to those long ago winters. I laughed and asked her why she needed so much vanilla. She thought for a minute about what I’d just said, then grinned.

“I didn’t need vanilla, but it was important to y’all to help, so that’s what I asked for.” Nannie said.

She followed up by saying she didn’t remember exactly but there were times she probably could have used something else but she’d never have asked us to haul groceries in the snow. She only “needed” vanilla because she knew it mattered to us to be of help – and it was easy for us to carry!

Some years after that conversation, with Nannie gone and her house being emptied, I stood in her kitchen and absent mindedly opened a cabinet. Pushed into one corner were several bottles of vanilla, some still in their original tiny cardboard boxes. I didn’t know if any of those might have been purchased in a snowstorm of the past, but I slipped one into my pocket just the same.

I still have that reminder.

By trying to do something we thought important to her, Nannie allowed us to feel that we were important.

I often sent my kids for vanilla when they were little. Not literally, but when I recognized in their faces that need to please by doing right, to feel important, to matter, I made sure I needed vanilla and I made sure they knew I couldn’t have gotten it without them.

Every kid should be sent to get vanilla, and often.

Stuart M. Perkins

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